Two weeks ago, NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in conjunction with the University of Michigan, released a study that shows a glowing red dot over the four corners area of the American West. This bright red spot, shown in stark contrast to anywhere else in the country, is a methane “hotspot” now present due to the current oil boom in the San Juan Basin. Methane is the primary component of natural gas, but can also be a potent pollutant when released or leaked into the air during oil and gas production.
The collection of methane is so significant that the scientists first thought their equipment was on the fritz— but after further examination, they confirmed it was in fact a behemoth methane hotspot, encompassing an area of over 2,500 square miles (the size of Delaware). The hotspot is situated above the San Juan Basin —home to of one of the most prolific oil and natural gas patches in the country.
Data for the study was collected between 2003 and 2009, at the height of the natural gas boom. Since 2009, the problem has only gotten worse. Another study using satellite data was published this week in the scientific journal Earth’s Future, and concludes that rates of leaking and wasted natural gas in current shale oil drilling operations is a lot higher than previously thought. The study argues that were NASA’s satellite image to be updated, we would now have glowing red spots over not only New Mexico, but the Bakken in North Dakota, Julesburg near Denver, Colorado and the Eagle Ford in Texas. A lot of the methane is also due to flaring (burning) and venting (releasing) the natural gas.
And that venting, flaring, and leakage of methane in the West means taxpayers continue to lose out big time. Last year home heating prices were so high that many struggled to heat their homes—one person even froze to death in North Dakota. But just miles away, incredible amounts of usable natural gas were being burned off or just released into the air.
Yet the oil and gas industry has continued to scoff at the problem. As stories emerged last week around the recent NASA image and report, industry responses ranged from dismissive to downright misleading. One such industry response was featured in the Farmington Daily Times in New Mexico, saying “Gas has seeped around here for thousands of years. I wouldn’t worry about it. Methane is part of life. I like it. I’ve made a living off of it for 60 years.” Thankfully comments like that haven’t stopped stakeholders from working together to reduce the wasteful practice.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), spurred by findings by the Government Accountability Office, has started to look at how they might require drillers to limit this massive wasting of natural gas ‑a resource the American public owns. In 2013 alone, enough natural gas was vented or flared to meet the needs of a city the size of Chicago or Los Angeles for an entire year.
A recent bipartisan poll of likely voters in four key energy-producing states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and North Dakota) found that 69% percent of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents support tough rules on venting and flaring of natural gas. The results are clear. Westerners, do not support such a wasteful practice.
Developing American energy has produced a lot of great benefits for communities across the West. But now is the time to put it all to work, not simply watch it go up in flames.